Most Spaniards believe that the possible presence of pesticide residues and chemical substances is the biggest threat in food. The same is true for most citizens of the European Union, according to the latest Eurobarometer on the subject, published in 2010. At the same time, less than half of the population is concerned about the "biggest food problem in Europe": the excess of calories and the obesity epidemic that this causes, explains Bernhard Url, director of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). Meanwhile, food poisoning, which is "the greatest real threat" posed by food, is also low in this list.
Bernhard Url is a specialist in food safety. Since 2014, he has headed the EU body in charge of issuing scientific studies on pathogens, contaminants and other compounds present in food, so that politicians can make evidence-based decisions. It is not an easy job and they often become the target of attacks, as has been the case recently with glyphosate, the most widely used herbicide on the planet. Visiting Madrid to meet with the Spanish Minister of Health, Luisa Carcedo, Url reflected in the following interview on the unfounded fears and real threats posed by food in Europe.
Q. Is organic always better?
A. In terms of safety, there are no differences. In terms of nutritional value, there are probably none either. Organic agriculture mostly has advantages in the field of sustainability.
Q. Does organic agriculture always have a lower environmental impact? For example, compounds with copper are used as pesticides, and those are toxic.
A. In general, yes. The way in which the soil is used, with rotating crops, is much more natural. The use of copper is an issue that we have been looking into. We see copper pollution as a problem for the environment and also for amphibians, birds and other organisms. We need to study it better.
Q. Should we worry about the content of fertilizers or chemicals in food?
A. In Europe, all additives must be evaluated before approval. All the approved ones are in a list and must be accepted again every 10 years after another evaluation. There is no such thing as zero risk, but in this field, it is very, very low. The greatest threats are food poisoning, both bacterial and viral. There are possibly millions of poisonings every year in Europe that could be prevented with better hygiene and controls. As for chemical waste, for example pesticides, we enforce maximum residue limits and a European report is prepared every year. The latter reveals that residue contents stand below the maximum threshold in more than 97% of foods. In 50% of them there is actually no residue at all. Only in 2.4% of foods are these limits exceeded. The situation is very good. The only doubt now is the possible combined action of chemical products. EFSA has been studying these additive effects for years. Together with the Netherlands, we are going to publish the first two reports of combined effects of pesticide residues in two human organs, the thyroid gland and the nervous system. We are still working on them and based on the results it is possible that some maximum limits may have to be readjusted.
Q. Are unfounded fears about food increasing?
R. Yes. Some people have concerns. They wonder: How can my son's urine have glyphosate? We'll tell you: The concentration is so low that there is no risk. People answer: But I don't want my children's urine to have glyphosate. This brings us to another question: What kind of agriculture do we want? Do we want pesticides or not? If we do, where are the risks and who benefits from it? It is a political discussion. It's not about science, but about values, about economics. We should not mix it with evidence-based science. Besides, there is another aspect. Food is no longer produced in our neighbor's field. It comes from New Zealand, from Chile, from Canada. The complexity of the supply chains makes absolute control impossible. We don't know where the food comes from and we have to rely on a complex food processing machinery. In the end, if we want to eat, we need to have trust. This makes people feel insecure.
P. How to restore their trust?
R. The industry has lost the trust of consumers. The food industry's reputation has been affected. Let us recall the horse meat issue. It was not dangerous to our health, it was just a deception. And then we have to ask ourselves: do we need strawberries from South America, or New Zealand kiwifruit, and all possible fruits and vegetables from the world all year round? Maybe we could regionalize our agricultural production once again. Regionalization entails quality labels, good animal treatment, etcetera, and the industry is trying to regain that trust with this type of guarantee seals.
Q. Will GM crops be necessary to feed 10 billion people?
A. I believe that if we arrange good programs to avoid losses after bad harvests, we try to prevent food waste in the so-called developed world and we change our eating habits, we can go far without GMO's. There may be specific applications in cases of dry weather or resistances, although I don't see a use for them in Europe at present.
Q. Could all European agriculture be organic?
A. I don't think we can fully replace conventional agriculture, but in some countries, it accounts for 20% of the total and I think it could even reach 30%. When institutions like hospitals or schools start buying organic, it makes a big difference.